Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chico Hamilton 1921-2013

I just read another of those bits of news you never want to hear. Drummer Chico Hamilton has just passed away at the age of 92.

Hamilton was a Los Angeles native who came up in that city's 1940's jazz scene.  As a leader in the 1950's he led a quintet that became emblematic of the West Coast "cool" scene, using guitar, flute and cello to create a dreamy, exotic texture unlike anything else at the time. His work would evolve over the years as he absorbed the sounds of hard bop, jazz-rock and funk into later groups.  He was one of those bandleaders who brought an astonishing amount of talent to attention.  Buddy Collette, Jim Hall, John Pisano, Fred Katz, Eric Dolphy, Gabor Sazbo, Larry Coryell, Charles Lloyd, Arthur Blythe and Eric Persson are just some of the musicians he worked with early in their careers. Lloyd's classic "Forest Flower" was first heard on Hamilton's Man from Two Worlds album.

Here is Hamilton's quintet at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival with Eric Dolphy on flute playing "Blue Sands" in an excerpt from the classic film Jazz on a Summer's Day:

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Jazz World: Beginnings

Louis Armstrong

The origins of American jazz are pretty clear cut. Coming out of the blues and dances passed down from West Africans who came to America as slaves, it began at the dawn of the 20th century as the party music played in the brothels of the Storyville district of New Orleans. There were important early figures like trumpeters Buddy Bolden, who left no surviving recordings, and Joe "King" Oliver but the music's undisputed first superstar was an Oliver protege, Louis Armstrong.  The constant invention and power Armstrong showed in his playing was the high water mark of the music up to that point. He also sang in a gravelly, melodic voice that sounded as special as his pealing trumpet work. Legend has it that during one recording session he dropped his sheet music and starting making up sounds and words during his vocal break, inventing the art of scat singing.  His greatest work came between 1925 and 1928 when he recorded with his small groups called the Hot Five or Hot Seven. Of those records the pinnacle is generally considered to be "West End Blues" which starts with an amazing solo trumpet cadenza and continues with some of his sweetest wordless singing.

Jelly Roll Morton

If Armstrong was the music's first great soloist, Jelly Roll Morton was its first great composer. At one time a pianist for the Storyville brothels, Morton's compositions and arrangements for his group, the Red Hot Peppers, kept the spontaneity and improvisational feel of jazz going in a written context. He wrote many tunes that became familiar in later years like "King Porter Stomp", "Wolverine Blues", "The Pearls" and "Black Bottom Stomp":

Bix Beiderbecke

From almost the exact moment that records of the New Orleans musicians began to appear, white musicians from other parts of the country listened and began to play their own takes on the sound. Almost immediately some grumbled that this music was just a pale imitation of the real thing, prettied up and diluted for a white audience.  Going by the work of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band or orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, a case could be made for that but in the 1920's the first white musicians with undeniably original voices began to emerge from the Midwest and New York. That group included saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, guitarist Eddie Lang and epsciialy trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke.  Beiderbecke's horn had a different sound than Armstrong, sunnier and jauntier with its own sense of freedom and adventure.  His most famous solo came on a recording with Trumbauer's orchestra, "Singin' The Blues:

Beiderbecke also did some composing and recorded a few piano solo pieces that were some of the first jazz works to try to pull the music away from traditional blues rhythms and into something influenced by the most progressive classical composers of the day like Ravel and Debussy.  If he had continued in this vein he might have become an even more significant figure, but sadly he wouldn't live long enough to carry on. A heavy drinker, Beiderbecke died in 1931 at the age of 30. Here is one of his piano works, "In A Mist":

Fats Waller

I wanted to touch on one other big name from the 1920's, Fats Waller. Waller began working as a professional pianist at 15 and soon built a career for himself as a performer and songwriter, writing over 400 songs in some estimates, including future standards like "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Jitterbug Waltz". He was renowned as one of the great stride pianists of his day and had an outsized performing personality that made him as famous as his music. That's evident is the first actual film clip I get to put up for this series, a 1942 Soundie (a early form of music video) for "Honeysuckle Rose":

Next: The Swing Era

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Jazz World: Introduction

A few people who know about my love of jazz have told me that I should put together some kind of list of Jazz artists or recordings I would recommend for someone who didn't know much about the music. In the next few days I'm going to start trying to do that but on a more ambitious scale. I'm going to start writing a series of posts about jazz artists I really love. This will cover a lot of ground so I'll posting sound clips and videos from other places on the Web, first in roughly chronological order, then branching out into some of the sub-groupings I really like such as vocalists, large ensembles and British jazz.

I want to make it clear from the beginning that this will all reflect my personal tastes and not be any attempt at a comprehensive history of the music. Professional writers like Gary Giddins and Ted Gioia have done far better books on that then I ever could.  I'll be mentioning some of the bedrock figures who have to be dealt with in this music's history, but eventually it's going to come around to the people I know and enjoy the most. I know I'm going to pass over some crucial names simply because I'm not as familiar with their music as I should be or because I just plain forgot. What I do talk about should just be considered starting points. If you like some of what you hear, investigating that artist's work is invariably going to lead you to plenty of other great artists. That's the path I followed when I first really started digging into this music.

I hope to do the first post in the next few days and try to continue weekly from there (though I can barely say that with a straight face). I have enough material to do this for a while.  Just looking around on YouTube I found several film clips by duos or groups I didn't dream had ever been filmed.  If you read any of these posts hopefully you'll hear something that will give you a sense of the great variety in this music and make you want to seek out more..

And just as a sample, here's a 1989 clip from a Vienna concert of two people I should be returning to down the line, pianist Carla Bley and bassist Steve Swallow doing Bley's composition, "Sing Me Softly Of The Blues":

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


The First Goodbye: Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley

With some musical biographies, what you get out of them can depend on your familiarity with the people being discussed.  For example I thoroughly enjoyed Control, the film about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, and 24 Hour Party People, the story of that band's label, Factory Records, and its owner, Tony Wilson, though I can understand that they both might seem impenetrable to someone who wasn't that conversant with British post-punk. Similarly I loved the film Greetings From Tim Buckley but I understand where it might lose people who don't know anything about the careers of its subjects.  It helps if you know something about the lives of Tim and Jeff Buckley but even if you don't this is still a moving story about a young man trying to come out from the shadow of a famous deceased father and make it as his own man.

Tim Buckley was a wildly talented singer-songwriter of the 1960's with a multi-octave vocal range who started out as a folksinger but played around with psychedelia, jazz, avant-garde improvisation and rock and roll before his premature death in 1975 at the age of 27 from a drug overdose.  This film, however, is about his son, Jeff, who took up music himself and it chronicles what happened when he went to New York in 1991 to take part in a tribute concert to his father.

As the movie tells it, as soon as Jeff walks into the concert space, St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn, for his first rehearsal, everyone is astonished by his physical resemblance to Tim, something Jeff doesn't care to hear about.  He's still very resentful of the fact that his father spent most of his childhood touring in the company of various girlfriends while he and his mother sat home in California and that he saw Tim very few times before his death.

This has the potential to come out as rote sub-James Dean "hurt man-child" stuff but this film runs deeper. Penn Badgley, who plays Jeff, has a scary physical resemblance to him and does the role with a mixture of charm, anger and hurt that is touching.  It also helps that Badgley's singing voice comes damn close to Jeff Buckley's actual otherworldly wail. There is one scene in a record store where he sings everything from "The Twelfth Of Never" to T. Rex and Led Zeppelin while flipping through albums that will floor you even if you've never heard Jeff Buckley in your life. His scenes are contrasted with brief flashbacks of Tim himself, played by Ben Rosenfeld, doing shows in New York, hanging out with his band and girlfriend while his wife sits home 3000 miles away pregnant. The real Tim and Jeff Buckley did have a strong physical resemblance and that holds true for Badgely and Rosenfeld who have a noticeable similarity in their movements and manners. You see that Jeff is chanelling his father even when he tries to declare his independence from him.

Jeff finds some solace in the company of Allie, a young woman working on the concert, played by Imogen Poots,   Their scenes together feel playful and fresh, with romantic longings taking a back seat to the sight of two lonely kids reaching out for friendship.  The movie climaxes with the concert itself, where Jeff, after cringing at the mention of his father's name throughout the film, sucks it up, goes on stage and blows everyone away singing his father's "I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain", "Phantasmagoria In Two" and "Once I Was" in a glorious voice, coming into the full flowering of his talent. The film ends with Jeff saying goodbye to Allie after the concert and leaving New York, a very poignant moment if you know what lies ahead of him.

In real life. Jeff's performance caught the music industry's attention and two years later, he recorded the album Grace which eventually became a big hit. Sadly his life paralleled his father's to the end.  In 1997, he too died at an ungodly young age, accidentally drowning in the Mississippi River.

The film, directed by Daniel Algrant, is told with measured pacing and subdued colors but it is suffused with music. Tim Buckley's recordings are all over the soundtrack but the scenes after the concert switch to one of Jeff's recordings "Lilac Wine", signalling that he's laid his father's ghost to rest.  Various musical figures like the concert producer; Hal Willner and Tim's old guitarist, Lee Underwood, are played by actors but there is an appearance from a real figure in this story, guitarist Gary Lucas who became Jeff's bandmate after he moved to New York. There's a nice scene of he and Badgley playing each other guitar riffs in his apartment. Lucas playing figures that I think eventually turned up as some of the songs on Grace.

There is a moving story about a son making peace with his father's memory here. It's a shame that lack of general familiarly about the Buckley's work will probably keep many people from seeing it. Greetings From Tim Buckley is a movie worth seeing and if it leads you to check out either father's or son's music, so much the better.